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Footwear Experts Weigh In: Can the Industry Kick Its Diversity Problem?

The events of 2020 have forced an uncomfortable—and very necessary—evolution within the fashion industry. The sector has been forced to confront its dependence on foreign manufacturing, its wasteful overproduction and unsustainable output, and, perhaps most notably, its issues with diversity and inclusion.

Social movements and calls for change are a touchstone of the American experience, and have been since the penning of the First Amendment. But today’s countrywide demands that law enforcement, federal and local governments, corporations and brands be held to account for their misdeeds are resonating more deeply than in any time in recent history.

At the beginning of the summer, following nationwide protests of the murder of George Floyd, the fashion sector began to respond, and it quickly became clear that platitudes and vague statements of support would not cut it with consumers. Instead, the industry would need to take concrete action to right its wrongs, ousting bad actors and taking measurable steps toward a future where representation is a top priority.

According to The Diversity List, a project founded by Tara Donaldson and Celena Tang, fashion’s issues with diversity run deep. Across the 100 global brands and companies analyzed by the initiative, just six have presidents or CEOs of color—an industrywide problem that Donaldson characterized in August as “systemic.”

Footwear’s heavy hitters in particular have made millions on the backs of black consumers and spokespeople, including athletes and pop culture icons. But internally, these companies are far less diverse than their public-facing campaigns would have consumers believe.

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As of this writing, The Diversity List’s data shows that out of 13 board members, Nike has just three of color. Twenty-two percent of the company’s workforce is black, while 43 percent is white, 19 percent is Latinx, 9 percent is Asian, 6 percent is two or more races, and 1 percent is Native American.

Timberland, which began courting an urban audience in the 1970s despite the fact that its workwear was initially created for outdoor use, is just 13 percent black, with one black board member in its 12-person boardroom. Foot Locker, which has peddled athletic shoes and sneakers to shoppers since 1974, self-reported that it is 80 percent white and 20 percent “ethnically diverse,” with three people of color sitting on its 12-person board.

Despite the troubling numbers within its corporate walls, Foot Locker said its latest expansion efforts aim to benefit communities of color across the U.S.

In late August, the company opened a sprawling store in the Compton neighborhood of Los Angeles designed to act as a gathering place for the neighborhood’s shoppers, artists and families. Ken Side, Foot Locker’s vice president for L.A. regional stores, said the creation of the space came from a desire to elevate an underserved community that is deeply important to the brand.

In addition to featuring exclusive, limited-edition collaborations with local artists and burgeoning designers, the Compton “community store” exclusively employs store associates that live within a five-mile radius. Wifi-enabled seating areas are designed for artist talks and as study spaces for local students.

The importance of efforts like this one has been “heightened over the past 10 weeks,” Side said, as the cultural climate becomes increasingly heated. But in actuality, the brand has been building out its strategy to engage with communities like Compton for years, he said.

Foot Locker’s fleet of community stores, all opened in recent years, are based in cities like Manhattan, Philadelphia and Detroit. The company worked directly with Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office over the course of a year to identify the L.A. neighborhood where a sparkling new anchor store might do the most good for local patrons and businesses.

“We believe we have an obligation to add our voice and actions to drive meaningful and lasting change across our company and within the communities we serve,” Richard McLeod, vice president of marketing for Foot Locker North America told Sourcing Journal, adding that the company “continues to stand resolute in [its] commitment to fight racial inequality and injustice.”

Foot Locker has committed $200 million over the next five years to enhancing the lives of its black employees and customers by creating opportunities for economic development and education, he added. The funding will go toward strengthening multiple existing scholarship programs, including one with the United Negro College Fund (UNCF).

The brand is also developing “additional plans to develop inclusive and equitable partnerships and programs that have staying power long beyond five years,” McLeod said.

Side identified the rotating cast of artist collaborations, known as the Home Grown initiative, as a particular point of pride for Foot Locker. It underscores the company’s desire to serve as a platform for local creators while providing the community with specialty products that were made just for them. Eventually, those products will be available online, too, broadening their reach to an international audience.

“The real unlock to a community store isn’t that we’re going into a places where people just need to shop,” Side said. Instead, Foot Locker aims to root itself in neighborhoods that are seeking “connectivity.”

“While retail and many other industries face unprecedented times, we believe that to play a role in this new landscape, community needs to be at the core of the retail experience,” McLeod added.

The influence of black consumers and designers extends far beyond the realm of sneakers, however.

According to Nancy Walsh, president of fashion for Informa Markets, which stages must-attend trade shows like Magic, Micam, Project and Coterie, the fashion industry has a duty to better support emerging talent within the black design community.

“With the Black Lives Matter movement in June and the resulting social discourse, Informa Markets’ Fashion team took a pause, listened and learned, like many other businesses,” Walsh told Sourcing Journal. “We realized we could—and should—do more.”

In conjunction with wholesale e-commerce platform NuOrder, the group launched the Informa Markets Fashion for Change (IMFC) incubator program, which aims to create equal opportunities for black designers by removing the barriers to entry to creating thriving wholesale businesses.

Ten up-and-coming brands received complimentary access to the group’s digital showroom for its trade events last week, as well as access to wholesale market tools, editorial features, marketing promotions, and individualized mentorship from industry experts to help put their labels on the map.

Taking into account the massive network of buyers using NuOrder’s OMS system—along with Informa’s own relationships with global retail—the 10 IMFC incubator brands will have access to nearly 100,000 retailers. Informa’s digital event on Sept. 1 attracted over 14,000 retailers.

“We didn’t want to highlight brands that were already overexposed,” Walsh said. “We wanted to showcase something new for the retailers, and give a new experience to the brands.”

Emerging labels across the board have asked for help with building up their presence on social media, and understanding the types of posts that will garner engagement. Mentorship from Informa’s Change Committee—along with established brand owners—will also help them with general business acumen.

An influential player in the industry, Walsh has also picked up some lessons of her own over the past few months of social upheaval. “Everyone’s awareness is so heightened, and myself, I’ve been humbled,” she said. “I’ve had my own employees say, ‘Take a look at your leadership team.’”

Under Walsh’s leadership, Informa has dedicated a wealth of resources to “creating an accountable program with longevity” to address the issue of systemic racism in the industry. The organization has founded an internal Change Committee with 11 members from across departments, from branding and marketing to sales, finance and social media, who have been tasked with tackling issues related to diversity and inclusion.

Walsh said that Informa is not the only group having discussions about diversity. Other fashion event companies and leading event organizers have also been vocal about their intentions to become more inclusive. “Having been in the industry for over 30 years, we’re all having very similar conversations with each other,” she added. “Do I think that everybody’s in? I do.”

Black footwear entrepreneur Thomas Young is banking on seeing that positive change. As a member of the industry’s new guard, he believes its historical shortcomings can be overcome with concerted effort.

“The industry just needs to look and even reach out to aspiring designers,” Young said. “Create opportunities and have brightly lit and inviting doors for us to walk through.”

The co-founder of School Footwear, a sneaker startup based in Dubai, said that that fashion’s biggest issue is that it feels “a little too exclusive.”

“It should feel like a more welcoming environment,” he said, “rather than creating an impression of a door that’s hard to push open unless you’re the owner’s son’s cousin.”

Young was hard pressed to name any established, black-owned footwear brands that he could look to for inspiration. “As far as being in the actual industry creating and designing, we’re few and far in between,” he said. Even Kanye West—whose Yeezy line has emerged as a bona fide supernova among mountains of mediocre celebrity-produced collections and collabs—is beholden to Adidas as a partner.

Despite heaps of hurdles to jump, Young said his experience as a black professional breaking into the shoe business has been largely positive. “I live in the Middle East, so racial stereotypes have been less of a problem for me,” he said, though he acknowledged that things might be different in the U.K. or the U.S.

Ultimately, Young believes that black designers and entrepreneurs have all the tools they need to make it on their own. It’s the environment around them that needs to evolve to accommodate them.

“In terms of support, I don’t need a lot,” he said. “I just need people to get the hell out of my way.”

This article was originally published as part of the MICAM Americas digital event.